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The economic slump has announced its arrival in the legal profession, and according to many observers of the economy, it is likely to keep us company longer than we might like. For junior law firm associates particularly, that is not good news, especially since they are generally perceived as “loss leaders” for their firms, wholly dependent on the excesses of overworked partners for their livelihoods, and stationed on the low rung of the ladder with respect to tenure and status in their organizations. Belt-tightening and even a few layoffs had been noted since late 2000 in the legal community, but it was Sept. 11, 2001 that forced law firms nationwide to respond to the downturn with a new seriousness of purpose. Firms have since announced plans to reduce or eliminate year-end bonuses, discontinue perquisites, make minor, downward adjustments in compensation and benefits and delay start dates for entry-level associates. There is also evidence that many firms committed to rigorous evaluations to predicate associate departures as a means of reducing excess capacity. RECRUITING CONTINUES The irony is that during this time, law firms have continued to recruit law students, orient new entry-level classes of associates and welcome the occasional lateral hire. Current associates are being let go while new talent is being hired. It is this scenario that strikes fear in the hearts of associates, who believe they may be justified in wondering about the fairness of it all. Whether the circumstances are fair or not, the economy and the possibility that their firms may consider associate layoffs in the future is somewhat beyond the control of those most affected. But their own professional interaction, work ethic and productivity while they are still with their firms are not beyond associates’ control. It is a wise junior lawyer who recognizes that the “value” of associates has plummeted, that associates are indeed a fungible commodity and that his or her near future may depend on their willingness to add new, specific value to the academic credentials they offer the firm. WHAT FIRMS VALUE Surviving a prolonged economic slump as an associate, according to those who have achieved that goal in the past, is part art and part science. The key is to understand and act on what law firms value about associates in challenging times (which may differ somewhat from what is valued in good times) and making certain that those characteristics are part of your repertoire. Unfortunately, just having a generally solid but unremarkable performance record — characteristics that would ensure employment by any top-notch firm in good times — will not be enough to ensure employment in bad times. John Challenger, CEO of Challenger Gray and Christmas Inc., has described the types of people who are most likely to keep their jobs during economic slowdowns. According to Challenger, whose international work keeps him abreast of trends in the marketplace, there are eight such archetypes, and for purposes of this column, seven of Challenger’s descriptions will be interpreted and applied to the associate experience. (The eighth refers to employees at or beyond retirement age.) Admittedly, associates who have been demonstrating these seven characteristics all along have a better shot at survival than those who adopt these behaviors, say, starting tomorrow — but there is great wisdom in Challenger’s concept. Want to survive? Then you need to be a “trouble seeker.” If that sounds a bit disingenuous, take care not to confuse it with “trouble-maker,” which can be an express ticket to the unemployment line. Rather, associates who are known as “trouble-seekers” can survive because of their willingness to seek out difficult assignments. They adopt positive attitudes toward problem solving without worrying about things being difficult. Moreover, associates who can combine being known as “trouble seekers” with “border-crossers” further enhance their employability in a downturn by demonstrating flexibility in attitude and aptitude that allows them to perform any number of jobs for which the firm might otherwise need to hire another person. Today’s law firms also value individuals who can bridge the differences among groups, build coalitions and support a team-oriented workplace. As a result, “facilitators” may have significant value to a firm in the throes of chaos. Facilitative leadership skills and the ability to build relationships count enormously when times are tough. Similarly, Challenger suggests that “nonstop students,” who are eager to learn and who soak up information to enhance their performance, are also highly valuable. Self-initiated (and perhaps self-funded) training, even when the firm is cutting back on their contribution to associate skills toolboxes, can make a significant difference in their value to the firm. Associates with a strong work ethic who take on extra tasks without being asked are “job vacuums,” and are also prospective survivors of economic downturns. Commitment, selflessness and a willingness to tackle the grunt work or jobs that others find unappealing is commendable. These junior associates “sweep” up all types of opportunities including future employment with the firm. Likewise says Challenger, “self-managers,” who have the discipline to manage their time, behavior and productivity, are valuable because they save their supervisors and administrators time and, thus, save the firm money. In other words, associates who need spoon-feeding, constant direction or supervision, or lots of flattery or feedback need not apply for survivor status. Finally, Challenger suggests that “clocklessness” can enhance value. Being clueless about clock-time seems a bit ironic given associates’ constant requirement for billing hours. Long days, and even longer weekends, are normal in good times and may seem contrary to expectations when work is less available. But those willing to give more time and effort at a moment’s notice demonstrate an understanding of the business issues the firm faces in client service. That can be a much-valued attribute in tough times. Challenger’s ideas are obviously part of what makes any employee valuable. That said, even the “survivor seven” do not constitute a fail-safe guarantee of recession proofing for today’s associates. If the economy worsens dramatically, the old “slash and burn” mentality of cost cutting (aka mass associate terminations) may once again raise its ugly head. But in the interim, it is never too late to assess what is valued, adjust behaviors to match, and exude an attitude that speaks clearly of interest in and commitment to the firm. Those who do so may be in the envious position of observing the next downturn as “unretirees,” Challenger’s eighth archetype. These are the folks who are highly valued because they are “experienced workers who can equal or better the output of full-time, entry-level employees.” Paula A. Patton is executive director of the National Association for Law Placement and the NALP Foundation. She can be reached at [email protected]

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